Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz, 20 Battles: Searching for a South African Way of War, 1913‒2013 (Johannesburg: Delta Books, 2023)

THE PURPOSE of this book, written by military scientists and historians, is to identify a distinctive South African way of fighting battles. Correctly, they believe that successful military operations depend on an appreciation of history. Their conclusions seem to be that freedom of movement and operational initiative in the field are key factors; and they trace these back to the Boer commandos. Military disasters, like Delville Wood and Tobruk, they conclude, can be ascribed to subservience to British-style military thinking.

Twice the South African army has had to integrate antagonistic forces. The Defence Act of 1912 brought together Afrikaner and British units in the Union Defence Force (UDF) designed as a modern disciplined army backed by a citizen force and rifle associations. Then, in a democratic nation the South African National Defence Force was constituted from the apartheid army, MK and APLA (its ANC and PAC opponents) and four bantustan military outfits.

In the first instance, language and cultural differences proved obstacles. Jan Smuts, aware of poor discipline and a lack of trained officers in the former republican armies, opted to base the UDF on the British model. It was thus ironic that its first task was to suppress the Johannesburg strikes of 1913‒1914 for which Smuts basically had to rely on Boer commandos who relished the task of taking on urban, largely English-speaking workers.

Much of the history of the South African army has been directed towards suppressing internal dissent and resisting the idea of wider involvement outside the African continent. However, the Great War saw the UDF involved in German South West (GSWA) and East Africa (GEA) and then on the western front in Europe. Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz contrast the defeat at Sandfontein (1914), characterised by immobility and delays, with the decisive victory achieved at Otavifontein (1915) by Louis Botha maximising mobility with mounted units living off the land, although he was eventually forced to use infantry.

This success, and the conquest of GSWA, established the reputation of the UDF and its subsequent involvement in GEA where Smuts, while unable to nail down the elusive Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, liberated Taveta, the only British territory occupied by Germans in the Great War, at the battle of Kilimanjaro (1916). Again, high mobility was the key to success. But the UDF’s next major engagement at Delville Wood in the battle of the Somme (1916) saw the exact opposite with infantry in trench warfare overwhelmed by intense artillery fire and sustaining catastrophic losses.

The Rand Revolt and Bondelswarts Rebellion (both 1922) saw the success of mobile units backed by airpower. While South Africa was largely unprepared for World War II, the early 1941 offensive launched from Kenya into southern Ethiopia was a complete success with the use of motorised infantry well co-ordinated with conventional infantry, armour, artillery and airpower. However, moving northwards the engagements at Cambolcia and Amba Alagi (both 1941) involved grinding mountain fighting.

The other World War II theatres were North Africa, Madagascar (not covered in this book) and Italy. Under British command in the first there were problems adapting to the terrain and a different military culture. South African troops were involved in two major defeats at Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk (1941 and 1942), both static engagements to which they and their generals were ill-suited.

Following these setbacks, the South African forces were retrained and re-equipped for armoured warfare. In Italy in 1944 the South Africans had contrasting fortunes. From the tank battle at Celleno they emerged with ‘flying colours’ (p. 172), but for the rest of the campaign the bulk of the fighting was borne by motorised infantry. At Chiusi they became involved in urban warfare, and poor preparation and reconnaissance led to the surrender of a company. Nevertheless, South African troops were subsequently involved in the liberation of Florence and ‘emerged from the Second World War with an admirable military record’ (p. 186). Apart from minor involvement in the Korean War, South African troops would not leave the African continent again.

The Border War from 1965 to 1989 provided much opportunity for mobility and the South Africans, like the Rhodesians, employed a tactic of vertical envelopment (fireforce) that was based on airpower, particularly the multi-task helicopter. The invasion of Angola, Operation Savannah (1975‒1976), typified the war: significant military gains alongside political setbacks. Cassinga (1978) was another operational success that was defeated in the propaganda war. And finally, there was the much-contested series of engagements known as Cuito Cuanavale (1987‒1988) whose victor, the authors sensibly suggest, depends on your viewpoint. Certainly, the South Africans fared less well in this battle when mobility was discarded in favour of a static tank confrontation.

Since 1994 the army has been involved in peacekeeping operations in Africa. Intervention in Lesotho (Operation Boleas, 1998) was a shambles. Pre-planning used road maps bought at a Bloemfontein garage; and the invasion force had no aerial photography intelligence. The upshot was a small and pointless war. In the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013, the presence of a force of about 200 South African soldiers was a matter of whim on the part of President Jacob Zuma. Support from headquarters was poor and that from CAR and French troops non-existent. In the battle of Bangui, the South Africans fought an intelligent and valiant rearguard action against overwhelming numbers of Seleka insurgents and ultimately had to pull out.

These twenty accounts of battles, especially the more obscure, make interesting reading but it is hard to know exactly what they prove. Each engagement was unique and required adaptation to the nature of the enemy, environmental factors and political conditions. An even more important factor was the quality of the preparation. The authors seem determined to show that there is a particular South African disposition towards fluid, mobile warfare with delegation of decision-making in the field. This certainly succeeded in certain battles.

But whether there can be an overall culture that connects today’s military with the Boer commandos of a century ago is debatable. More importantly a historical tendency towards poor planning identified in this book is the legacy to be taken more seriously.